Look beyond the obstacle to see the opportunity

Fri, May 6 2016

Mentor. Biologist. Creative thinker.

Melissa Hills can’t remember a time when she wasn’t fascinated by the living world.

“I have a lot of memories, from as far back as I can remember, of observing,” she says. “We’d watch our rabbits have babies, or we’d go outside and follow insects around. My father would find interesting things in nature, like nests and owl pellets, and bring them back to me and my brother to inspect. So when I look back, it’s no surprise that I ended up where I am today.”

The connection between Melissa’s childhood curiosity about nature and her role as associate professor in biological sciences at MacEwan University makes sense. But becoming an educator wasn’t her original plan—becoming a research scientist was. When she started her undergraduate degree in molecular genetics at 18, she had a clear vision of her future career and a plan for how she would achieve it.

“ It was my first experience with really serious research—I thought I would love it, that it would be my passion.” 

“My goal was a career in science—I was going to do my PhD in Australia, my post-doc in Europe, and then I’d come back to Canada and have a research lab. That just seemed to me the obvious path for a scientist.”

So with the ink on her undergraduate degree barely dry, Melissa headed to Australia to embark on her PhD research and the next step in her carefully planned career path. But there’s a saying about best-laid plans—they often go astray. And as she progressed through her program, Melissa became uneasy about the path she had once been so sure of.

“It was my first experience with really serious research, and I thought I would love it, that it would be my passion,” she recalls. “It wasn’t.” The long hours in the lab, repetitive nature of the research and the isolation she felt weren’t what she expected. “I became a bit disillusioned because I realized this really intense research life I thought I was going to have wasn’t for me. I felt like I was having a bit of a pre-midlife crisis.” Melissa completed her PhD, but instead of heading to Europe for her post-doc, she headed back to Edmonton for a break, uncertain about the future.

Today, she looks back on that “pre-midlife crisis” in the same way she would a scientific experiment that didn’t yield the expected results.

“There is a very creative element to science—you need to be innovative and creative when you’re solving problems and trying to answer questions about the natural world. When you conduct an experiment and things don’t work as expected, it’s an opportunity to apply lateral thinking and troubleshoot.” Through a few sessional teaching opportunities at MacEwan, Melissa discovered a science career that was the perfect fit for her.

“I love the balance between teaching, research and building community I have here. I get to learn every single day, and I get to share what I learn. And now I have a newfound passion for research because I like the engagement with undergrads, and being able to mentor them through that experience.”

Melissa is an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. Find out more at MacEwan.ca/BiologicalSciences.